The Internet in the Age of Rage

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It’s “an outrage machine.” That’s how one writer describes the Internet in the age of rage. It sure is an angry place.

Spend a little time researching, surfing the Net, hanging out on social media, even shopping, and you’re bound to bump into some grumpy campers. If you haven’t had a run-in with hatred-brimming, expletive-spewing individuals, it’s probably because you avoid the comments.

Comment sections—the cesspool of the Internet. The bilge well of vitriol, where all the Internet’s bad vibes seep. It’s the domain of trolls, the low-life bullies who incite arguments and abuse others for their entertainment.

Some sites should come with a safety warning: Comment at your own risk! The list of rant-ready topics exceeds politics and religion to include parenting, feminism, vaccinations, equal marriage, even boy bands—just about anything can inspire ire.

If you make a comment about a hot topic, you’d better fasten your seatbelt and strap on your helmet, because the trolls are armed and ready to fling muck (filth even) fast and thick.

OTT Anger – A Real Example

High profile people deal with rage and abuse all the time. A 2015 episode of the public radio show, This American Life, told the story of Lindy West, a female journalist who had an epic run-in with a troll who went too far. The story from episode 545 is called Ask Not for Whom the Bell Trolls, It Trolls for Thee.

This guy didn’t stop at nasty comments about her appearance; he impersonated her recently deceased father, setting up a Twitter account in his name and tweeting about her. The precision attack sent Lindy reeling.

She went against the common internet injunction of “not feeding the trolls” (meaning don’t engage with them) and wrote an article about the devastating nature of this troll’s angry attack.

Astonishingly, the perpetrator contacted her by email and apologised. He allowed her to interview him on the radio, a discussion that gave incredible insight into the motivation and minds of online hate-mongers and their blindness to their own cruelty. Fortunately, in this instance the troll reformed himself.

You can read the transcript or listen to the podcast of Lindy’s story on the website of This American Life. N.B.: Before you click the links, please be warned that the story contains swear words and mature sexual concepts. This link takes you to the “bleeped” audio version where the swear words are disguised. The other mature content remains.

What’s with all the anger?

Some researchers blame the rage on the anonymous nature of internet engagement. Being faceless divests people of personal responsibility and civility.

Other researchers blame the heightened expectations Westerners have for convenience and speed. When those expectations are frustrated, users get cranky. Whether it’s in traffic, on sidewalks, or online, people these days don’t like to have to wait. Not even for the quarter of a second it takes for their news feed to load.

Another theory goes like this:  the media has moulded people into information junkies, and the Internet is the dealer. Overdosing on info bytes turns users into Know-it-alls. What a know-it-all craves most of all is an audience—or at least a soapbox where they can demonstrate their superiority. Put a bunch of info-addicted junkies together in one space to battle it out, and you’ve got a digital rage-fest.

What if we shifted the focus slightly, and instead of snorting information like a crazed coke addict, people targeted knowledge? Or better yet—wisdom. Instead of a bunch of snarky, short-tempered prigs and ill-mannered smart alecks, Netizens might become Resources or even Mentors instead of sassy know-it-alls.

Hope for a Civil Internet?

Civility is a high price to pay for the convenience of instant information and continuous entertainment. Why do we accept such atrocious behaviour? Where are the role models of good digital citizenship? Of most concern is the impact of all this vitriol on the youth of today who are growing up in such a furious world.

How can young people wade through abuse and ignorance without being tainted? With education and skills, they could transform the cesspits of abuse and ignorance into civilised forums for meaningful discussion.

Come back next week for more on Kids and the Internet in the Age of Rage. I’ll share tips for parents to recognise the Internet’s rage hot-spots and how to train kids to stay safe and be civil online.